Officials: Rising costs strain Superior Court

Juror fees, record divorce filings among challenges

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Annual divorce filings in Clark County Superior Court, which consistently hovered around 2,100 between 1995 and 2006, are on target to surpass 3,000 for the first time.

The fact was mentioned Tuesday when Superior Court officials got their face-time with county commissioners to outline priorities for the 2011-12 budget.

The court’s top priority was $73,000 for juror fees and mileage, as juror costs have risen with an increase in trials.

But $28,000 for substitute court commissioners was listed as a secondary priority, and, along with the explanation of increasing divorce caseloads, an example of how the court has been trying to make do with less because a third court commissioner position has gone unfilled.

Tuesday’s meeting with presiding Judge Barbara Johnson was the last in a series with elected officials — the sheriff, clerk, assessor, auditor, treasurer, prosecutor and District Court and Superior Court judges — during which county commissioners listened politely and pressed for justification for any suggested increases.

“Making do with less” was a recurrent theme during the meetings. Elected officials also took the opportunity to make their cases for why some cuts have proved too deep or to explain new expenses.

Clark County has cut its general fund budget three times for a total of 22 percent, or $62 million, since its peak in the 2007-08 budget. The cuts eliminated 270 positions (about half of which were filled), or about 15 percent of the county work force. Work hours and pay have been reduced for nearly 200 employees.

County Commissioners Marc Boldt, Tom Mielke and Steve Stuart will adopt the budget in December.

“Based on all the numbers we’ve seen, we’ve done a good job of getting into balance, but we’re lean and there’s very little margin. I don’t expect there to be much to give,” Stuart, chairman of the board, said Tuesday.

The commissioners, who voted for a 1 percent property tax hike last year, mostly to preserve law enforcement, will have to consider whether to go that route again.

“It’s a horrible time to raise taxes or fees,” Stuart said. “People are hurting. People are on the edge, and I certainly don’t want to be part of anything that pushes them over it. We haven’t had a discussion about what we are going to do about it.”

During the meetings with elected officials, commissioners have heard a range of requests.

For example:

• Sheriff Garry Lucas wants additional staff to process public disclosure requests (his department, which has a joint records unit with the Vancouver Police Department, received 15,500 public disclosure requests in 2009 and by state law the documents must be turned over in a timely manner).

• Clerk Sherry Parker wants to restore employees’ hours so the office can open at 8 a.m., the same time as other county offices, rather than 8:30 a.m. She said reduced hours and layoffs have led to a backlog of documents that need to be scanned.

• Presiding District Court Judge John Hagensen said the court, which provides interpreter services for District and Superior Court, would save money if it hired a Russian and Spanish interpreter rather than contract with interpreters.

• Prosecutor Art Curtis, who isn’t running for re-election, said his office needs more money for trials and victim-support services.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Superior Court Administrator Jeff Amram said jury costs have increased because of an increase in trials in District Court. Superior Court provides services for both courts, he said. Jurors earn $10 a day and 50 cents a mile for driving to and from the Clark County Courthouse. Last year, jurors traveled more than 262,000 miles, he said.

“There are definitely pressures (on all county departments),” Stuart said Tuesday. “They make a good case for how the cuts have hurt their ability to provide services. But it all comes back to (the fact that) we must have a balanced budget. … They are in there advocating for their people and their services, and that’s their job and I’m glad they are doing it,” Stuart said. “But my job is to help create a balanced budget, and at the same time make sure services are provided. It’s a tough balance.”

Perhaps the single biggest request came from Auditor Greg Kimsey. Maybe because he doesn’t have an opponent this year, Kimsey was assigned the task of informing commissioners that the county’s Oracle Corp. software, which the county began converting to in 2001, needs $500,000 worth of work, including the cost for temporary employees to install new software.

The financial management software “is the way we account for the people’s tax money,” County Administrator Bill Barron explained to commissioners.

Commissioner Mielke questioned the need during the Aug. 11 work session.

“If we don’t, in a few years Oracle won’t support the system,” Kimsey said. “The reality is, once you made the decision to buy off the shelf, you are at the mercy of the vendors,” Kimsey said.

“I have a problem relying on the outside world for our world to exist,” Mielke said.

“Nobody likes being in this world, but it’s where we are,” Kimsey said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.